The Irish Mythological Cycle

Chief source – knowledge of pagan Ireland = Mythological Cycle. Concern – heroes – inhabitants before Gaels. Central theme = people who withdrew > fairy mounds. Cycle includes – pantheon of gods belonging to the Tuatha da Danaan (People of Dana). Associated with Danu, Anu, Donn.



Therefore – Mythological Cycle scenario = Aengus, Aed, Aine, Badb, Balor, Bauba, Bel, Boand, Bodb, Brigit, Dagda, Eriu, Fodla, Goibiniu, Graiine, Grian, Lug, Lugnasa, Macha, Mag Tuired, Mananaan mac Lir, Midir. Mongan, Mor, Morrigan, Nuadu, Ogam, Otherworld, Samain, Tuatha da Danaan.

The Ulster Cycle – scenario = Craeb Ruad = Red Branch Knights. Based – Emain Macha (present Navan Fort). 2 miles west of Armagh City. Largely 1st century AD. Reign of Conchobar mac Nessa + Medb (Queen of Connaught).

Associated with the cycle = Briciu, Conchobar mac Nessa, Cruachain, Cuchulain, Emain Macha, Fer Diad, Fergus mac Raich, Gae Bolga, Leogaire Buadach, Medb, Scathach, Sualdam mac Rioch, the Tain. Also – Longes mac nUsing, Mesroida mac da Tho

The Ulster Cycle stories include – Tain Bo Cualgne; Briciu’s Feast; Love Story of Deidre and Naoise; Scel Mucce Maicc Da Tho.

The Ulster Cycle = the oldest and most famous of the cycles of Old Irish epic, legend  and romance. Manuscript dates from 7th and 8th centuries. They celebrate the Ireland and Irish heroes of the 1st century.  Depict civilisation of historical barbarism.

Most of the stories are situated in the 1st century BC.  Time = Conchobar was king of Ulster with seat at Emain Macha. Cuchulain is the central hero.  The principal and longest text is the Tain Bo Cuailngne.

The Cycle also includes – the story of Visitation to Guaire, the Debility of the Ultonians. the Tain Bo Fraic, the Exile of the Sons of Usnech, the Wooing of Emer, Briciu’s Feast, the Tragic Death of Aife’s Only Son, the Story of MacDatho’s Pig, the Intoxication of the Ultoninans, and the Dream of Angus.

Attached to the Ulster Cycle were – narratives called the story of Cuchulain’s Death, the story of the Red Rout of Conal Cearnac on the Plain of Muirthemne, the Phantom Chariot of Cuchulain, also the Destruction of De Derga’s Hostel.

 Ossianic or Fenian Cycle – Set – reign of Cormac mac Airt = Tara – 3rd century AD. Tales revolve around Finn Mac Cumaill (Finn mac Cool) + Fianna. Ancient capital = Almu (Hill of Allen, County Kildare).

Scenario of stories includes – Caoilte mac Ronain, Cormac mac Airt, Finn mac Cumaill, Gabhra, Goll mac Morna, Graiine, Imbas Forosnai, Oisin, Tara.

Historical Cycle or Cycle of Kings – includes Can Cet Chathach, Cormac mac Airt, Niall Noigiallach, Tagail Bruidne Da derga, King Conaire Mar.

Stories associated with cycles = Wooing of Etain (see Midir); The Battle of Moytura (see Mag Tuired); Children of Lir (see Oidhead Clainne Lir).

The Pursuit of Diamuid and Grainne (reputedly 3rd century BC) = variations – The Plunder of Dinn Rig (Labraid Loongsech). Destruction of Da Derga’s Hotel (Tagail Bruidne Da Derga).

Historicity of main characters – broadly – events <200 AD – seen as fiction, and > 200 AD as fact. However – some 17th century tales = fiction. Ancient battles = fact (e.g., destruction of Dinn Rig).

19th century scholars > great personages existed, e.g. Cuchulainn, Conchobar, Medb. See – Standish O’Grady – Silva Gadelica (London, 1892). See – Ernest Windisch – Irische Texte (Leipzig, 1880).

Archaeology – man – > Ireland pre-6000 BC [between Palaeolithic and early Mesolithic]. The Annals of the Four Masters – places arrival of first colony in 2678 BC. During this warm weather period – megaliths first appeared.

Much of recording = monks > 6th and 7th centuries AD. Used chronological systems – Eusebius of Palestine – 3rd century. Isodore of Seville – 6th century. Dated events from Anno Mundi (the beginning of the world) = AM. Thus – early historians = first colony = 2050 AM. Placed Irish history in Christian context. Thus progenitor of Irish becomes Adam not Donn.

Conversion of AM . AD – AD1 = 5198 AM. Therefore subtract BC from 5198 AM. Therefore – 2520 = 2678 BC.

T. F. O’Rahilly – regards historians as euhemerists > divine tales as humans of distant age. Therefore – Manannan mac Lir . navigator in Isle of Man, rather than a sea-god. Thus Alfred Nutt = “…the mythology of the Celts has suffered more than that of any other race from the euhemerising methods of investigation applied to it.”

Oldest surviving complete manuscript books = sources = 12th century AD + earlier fragmentary texts. The Irish tradition = oldest mythological tales and sagas. The oldest complete manuscript  books = sources = 12th century AD + earlier fragmentary texts.

Oldest complete = Leabhar na hUide – Book of the Dun Cow; Leabhar Laignech – Book of Leinster; Rawlinson Ms B502 – (Bodleian unnamed mss). Kuno Meyer – listed 400 sagas in the mss books [see Liadain and Curithir: A Love Story (1900)]. Several more hundred tales have been listed [see also: The Cuchulain Saga in Irish Literature.  Eleanor Hull (1898)].

The Battle of mag Tured or Moytura  – The most important story in the Irish Mythological Cycle.

The story of the victory of the Tuatha De Danaan over the Fomorians. One narrative = one battle – Tuatha overthrew both Fomorians and Firbolgs.  Later narratives = two battles.  First battle = in Mayo against Firbolgs. Second = seven years later in Sligo against Fomorians.

When the Tuatha first arrived in Ireland on May 1st – they secured victory by burning their boats. They then demanded kingship from the Firbolgs. Thence the first battle of Mag Tured.  Won and slew 1100 of the Firbolgs.  Survivors flrd to Aran, Islay, Mann, and Rathlin.

The second battle of mag Tured – fought farther north in Sligo on Samain or November 1st.  Among Fomorian kings and chiefs were Bres, Balor, and Elatha. Also the father of Bres called Goll + Irgoll Loscennlomm.

Indech – son of the king + Octtriallach, son of Indech. Lug in forefront heartened the Tuatha.  Terrible slaughter. Dead heroes floated in the river Unsenn.

Indech wounded Ogma.  Balor killed Nuada.  Lug then killed Balor with a sling-stone in one eye. Missile went through his head and killed three times nine men behind him.  Seven hundred, seven score, and seven men of the Fomorians were killed.

Lug, Dagda + Ogma pursued remnants back to their place. The dead were cleared.  Badb and Morrigan proclaimed the battle and vicory to the Tuatha.  Therefore – victory of Tuatha over all Ireland.

To be continued


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